By Jeff Bleiler
Special for Second Half
COMSTOCK PARK – Put the Hart and St. Charles teams together, and you’d have had a runaway winner in the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Track & Field Finals on Saturday at Comstock Park.
Hart’s dominance in the distance events and St. Charles’ performances in the sprints would have made it difficult for any other team to challenge for the title.
As it was, each team’s strength countered the other to near perfection as Hart and St. Charles tied for the Division 3 championship with 46 points, earning both their first MHSAA Finals title in this sport.
They finished 10 points ahead of third-place Onsted, which closed the gap by placing fifth in the final event, the 1,600-meter relay. Neither Hart nor St. Charles fielded a team in that event, and Onsted entered it 14 points behind with only 10 available to the winner – so the championship had been decided before that last race even got started.
Both Hart and St. Charles’ coaches were pleased with the shared championship, the first time that’s happened in Division 3 since Laingsburg and Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central split the crown in 2003.
“We had an idea we’d have a chance if we used (junior) Adelyn (Ackley) in three events but didn’t know where she’d end up,” said Hart coach Mindy Whitney, who actually inserted Ackley into a fourth event, which proved critical.
Ackley – who led the cross country team to the LPD3 title in the fall as well – won the 3,200 in 10 minutes, 45.54 seconds; finished runner-up in the 1,600 to Hanover-Horton’s Judy Rector; and placed sixth in the 800, all that after anchoring the winning 3,200 relay in the day’s first event. Alayna Ackley, her older sister, led off and sophomore Brenna Aerts and freshman MacKenzie Stitt filled the second and third slots, respectively, as the relay finished in 9:32.67.
Alayna Ackley also provided valuable points by placing third in the 3,200 despite coming back from a stress fracture injury just last month. The 3,200 was a boon of points for Hart, which picked up 20 in that event alone as the third Ackley sister, freshman Savannah, was fifth.
Whitney said her brother was keeping tabs on the team scoring but after the completion of the 3,200, she thought they came up a point short.
“I was very happy; it was a good day,” she said.
The same could be said for St. Charles, which did its damage in the sprints. Najiyah Holden did the most by winning the 200 in 25.61 seconds, finishing third in the 100 in 12.73 seconds and running the first leg of the winning 400 and 800 relays. The other members of the relays were freshman Hope Kushion and sophomores Erica Garcia and Celine Whiren.
Coach Andre Williams was especially pleased with the 800 relay team’s time of 1:44.97, which broke by three seconds the school record.
“I’m satisfied with (sharing the title),” he said. “After the 400 relay, I knew we had a shot. I told Najiyah she had a shot at winning the 200, and she did. We just don’t have any distance runners.”
Sprinter Jenna Odykirk of Farwell put to rest previous struggles at the Finals by winning the 100, edging reigning champion Shiyon Taylor of Parchment by two hundredths of a second, and finishing runner-up in the 200.
Odykirk, who finished a disappointing 16th in the long jump, took solace with her finishes in the sprints after she missed the finals in 2017 in the 200 by one spot and was a distant 16th in the 100.
“I didn’t do too well in the long jump, but I had decent times in everything else,” said Odykirk, whose time of 12.63 seconds in the 100 was a personal best.
Odykirk, a junior, credited the improvement to off season indoor work at Saginaw Valley State University with coach Kyle Payne and outdoor work with Farwell coach Matt Horodyski.
“Next year, my goal is to be state champ in the 200 and the 100, do better in the long jump and run in the 400,” said Odykirk, who qualified this year for the 400 after finishing sixth in the event at last year’s Finals. She opted not to run it Saturday.
In the field events, the shot put provided some late fireworks as Beaverton senior Alicia Aldrich and Clinton’s Amanda Schaare put on quite a show.
In her final attempt with Aldrich on deck, and with the crowd slow clapping as she readied, Schaare heaved it 43 feet, 9¼ inches to move into first. The crowd gave Aldrich a similar slow clap, and she responded with a launch of 44 feet, 7½ inches to take the championship.
“I was like shaking a lot,” Aldrich said. “It feels really great. I wasn’t expecting that at all. The competition really makes you want to throw it farther. I got nervous when I saw Amanda throw it, but then I heard the atmosphere and it pumped me right up.”
Aldrich, who just started competing in shot put last year, will continue in the sport at SVSU.
The runner-up finish for Schaare was not a disappointment as she already had repeated as the discus champion. Schaare won with a toss of 128 feet, beating Sheridan Dinsmore of Caro by six inches.
“(Repeating) was awesome; I really wanted to do that for myself,” Schaare said. “Words just can’t describe it. It’s a feeling that not everyone gets to experience. I just have the greatest support system.”
Schaare’s runner-up put was a personal record, beating the 41-9 she posted early in the season.
“I didn’t finish first in the shot put, but I’m OK with that because with the discus, that would have been icing on the cake,” said Schaare, who will compete in track for the University of Michigan.
Marlette senior Emily Schaub swept the hurdles, winning the 100 hurdles in 15.01 seconds and taking the 300 in 46.96 seconds. She was third in the 100 hurdles a year ago and did not qualify for the 300 final after placing 15th in her 2017 preliminary.
Jackson Lumen Christi freshman Renae Kutcha won the 800 in 58.75 seconds, and Hanover-Horton’s Rector won the 1,600 in 4:52.59. Kutcha also led off the opening leg of Lumen Christi’s winning 1,600 relay team, joining junior Allison Rand, junior Marilyn Schonhard and senior Audrey Warriner with a finish in 4:01.9.
Boyne City senior Anna Harmeling won the pole vault in 11-6, Millington senior Hannah Hall won the high jump at 5-3 and Onsted senior Harlie Sweet won the long jump with a leap of 17-3½.
PHOTOS: (Top) A pair of St. Charles runners execute a handoff during a relay Saturday. (Middle) Hart's Adelyn Ackley, left, stays a step ahead during one of her relays. (Photos by Annette Tipton. Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)
BLISSFIELD – Last fall, June Miller raced for an MHSAA cross country title at Michigan International Speedway. During the winter she played in the Division 3 Basketball Final at the Breslin Center. In the spring, she competed at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 track & field championships in Kent City.
As she embarks on her senior year at Blissfield Community Schools in southeast Michigan, Miller isn’t concerned about an encore.
“I don’t worry about topping my junior season,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to. I’ll fight for it to the best of my ability, but if I don’t make it that’s okay. There were a lot of factors that went into last year, and I can’t control all of them this year.
“I’ll leave my best out there and know that I gave it my all, and in the end that’s the true accomplishment. If it takes me that far or further, then great. If not, that’s okay.”
Miller’s remarkable run to MHSAA Finals in three sports remains even more impressive when considering she had eight goals and five assists playing defense for the Royals soccer team.
“Shows up to work, busts her tail every practice, every game,” said Blissfield girls basketball coach Ryan Gilbert. “Never have to worry about June Miller.”
Miller is as steady an athlete as they come, never getting too high or too low in pressure situations. In basketball, Gilbert said Miller never met a shot she didn’t like. Miller started all 29 games last season, leading the team in 3-pointers.
Gilbert said Miller is even-keeled.
“It takes a while to get into the ‘June Miller circle,’ but I’m almost in,” he said. “This is her senior year; this is my year. She’s very funny when you get to know her and has a brilliant mind.
“She wants to win over everything,” Gilbert said.
Miller wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross country team last fall – that spot would belong to her younger sister, Hope. June has no problem with that.
“I love running with my sister,” she said. “She’s an amazing and incredibly kind person. Her dedication to running inspires me and keeps me fighting for it. We train together sometimes and she’s the one that pushes me, and I love that.
“I always knew she’d be faster than me someday, and I couldn’t be prouder of how fast she’s become and how much she’s achieved. (People might) think I’d hold some resentment for her beating me while I’m older, but she’s lived in my shadow for years and I’m so glad she’s been able to find her place that she can dominate.”
Blissfield is eyeing a big season in cross country after winning a Regional and just missing the top 10 at the Final a year ago. The Miller sisters are a big reason for the giddiness.
“I’m ready to leave it all out there,” Miller said. “It’s my senior season, and I want to go out strong. I think the end goal for all of us is to really push it this season and improve with each race so by the time we hit Regionals we’re in the best shape physically and mentally so we can leave it all on the course to get to states again.”
Because of her work schedule this summer, Miller missed some of the team workouts but was able to get the details from her sister and went out on her own time and trained to build up her mileage in preparation for the season.
“I think the experience from last year will give us something to fight for,” she said. “It allows us to look at the season with our end goal being the state meet. It gives us a passion and something to fight for.”
Blissfield cross country coach Ryan Bills called Miller a strong competitor.
“She is fun kid,” he said. “You never know which June you’re going to get – funny, chatty June or serious, no-nonsense June. Either way she always gives it her all during competition, which is why she has seen so much success the past year.”
The four-sport athlete spent the first couple of weeks of summer refreshing her body before kicking it into high gear.
She did take some time to reflect on all the places she got to play and compete last year and is grateful to be part of a team that helped her reach those places.
“It was a unique experience,” she said. “When I’m playing basketball or running track and cross country, I’m not focused on where I am physically – instead I’m in my head focused on what I need to do.
“Once you get to someplace, you stop thinking about getting there and you move on to the next step of being there and doing what you need to there.”
Miller is one of the top students in her class. She’s currently trying to decide whether she wants to pursue playing soccer in college. She wants to major in business and minor in sustainability, eventually getting a master’s degree in architecture.
“I want to be a sustainable design architect,” she said, “who can better the world through the art of architecture.”
Miller’s future looks bright, as does the outlook for this athletic year. In all three sports for which she reached the Finals last year, the Royals have enough returning talent to make lengthy runs again.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Miller said, about four days before the first cross country event of the season. “I want to make it to all those state tournaments again, but I want to do it with my teammates because they’re the ones that make it memorable and something to remember forever.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Blissfield’s June Miller (750) races during a cross country meet last fall. (Middle) Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run. (Cross country photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; basketball photo by Gary Sullivan.)